Culture  /  Origin Story

Do Americans Sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ Because of a Frat Party?

Or maybe it was the cigars that gave us this New Year's Eve staple.

“When we left Canada, we had no idea we’d ever play it again,” Lombardo said. In pursuit of fame, the band moved first to Chicago and then, just before the Great Crash on Black Thursday, to New York, where they had been promised a residency at the Roosevelt Hotel and a regular spot on a national radio program sponsored by a cigar brand—the Robert Burns Panatela show on CBS. Lombardo had already decided it would be fitting to end each radio broadcast with “Auld Lang Syne,” written by the poet with whom the skinny cigars shared a name. But the deal had yet to materialize. So Lombardo reached for the tune just as the band signed off from CBS, where it had been booked until midnight. As the ball dropped in Times Square, the band was actually heard on rival NBC, which picked up the Roosevelt feed.

And that might have been that—an old Scottish folk song, played by a Canadian band in a New York hotel late one night at the end of a tumultuous year. No one was thinking about the playlist for next New Year’s Eve. Lombardo and his bandmates had other things on their mind, mainly how to make a living as musicians in the first days of the Great Depression. The Roosevelt Hotel Grill Room where the band typically played was quiet most nights; few had the money to splurge on a weeknight outing and no one felt much like dancing.

But things were starting to look up for the band by around Easter 1930. They were playing regularly on the radio, which brought more people into the restaurant and earned the band numerous invitations to perform on college campuses. In April, they traveled to Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia. “It’s funny how that college date remains in my memory,” Lombardo later wrote. It’s funny, too, how it contributed to an enduring American tradition.

The band was buoyed by the optimism they encountered on the college campus. After the formal dances—alcohol-free occasions—students often invited the men in the band back to fraternity parties. They brought along their instruments and “libations flowed freely,” Lombardo recalled. One night the band decided to end the evening with “Auld Lang Syne,” as they had so often in Ontario. We “were amazed by the reception it got from the students. They demanded one encore after another.” Finally, Lombardo leaned down from the bandstand to ask, “What’s so great about ‘Auld Lang Syne’?”

For the students, the answer was obvious: Lombardo was leading them in the school’s de facto fight song. “The Good Old Song” had the same tune as the Scottish standard, but instead of “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and the days of auld lang syne,” the students heard “Let’s all join hands and give a yell for the dear old UVA.”